And I don’t mean the one next to Alabama.
Usually when I travel around Europe on weekend adventures or school breaks, I take my backpack and stuff it with all my goodies. That includes about 3 sets of clothes, an extra pair of pants, and all the doo-dads a wanderer requires for a max three-week adventure. This upcoming trip would need a bit more, however. In fact, I won’t be back to Denmark until the end of February. So where will I be? In short, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and America before spending my first semester of senior year abroad at Lingnan University in Hong-Kong. Not having much of anything back home in the United States, it means that everything I pack for this trip will be what I have to live with until February. That’s a sobering thought.
Whenever I go on longer trips, I bring my trusted black duffel bag. It squeezes perfectly into EU regulated carry on dimensions and can hold a surprisingly large amount. I was able to hold my clothes and two full-sized Albanian rugs on my last trip around the Balkans. But after walking miles upon painful miles around Tirana and other random Albanian cities, I decided I would need something to preserve my back on this next trip. Naturally, this brought me to my favorite store in the world: IKEA.
The centre for all my favorite design and homeware goods, IKEA now apparently sells bags as well. For me, a large backpack with waterproof skin and pockets galore…just small enough to fit the carry on requirements. And it has my favorite shade of bright orange!I couldn’t fit the guitar, but you can be sure I tried. This all set me back a good $40, but as I’ll be living out of this bag for more than six months I see it as a worthy investment. If you’re interested, you can check it out here: https://www.ikea.com/dk/da/catalog/products/40401878/
New bag ready, I packed up six sets of shirts, socks and undies, 2 shorts, jeans, and hiking pants and all my goodies for the road ahead. First stop: Gdańsk. The city in Northern Poland can be reached from Aarhus for a pretty extraordinary cost of $6…but the train 1:30 long train to the Aarhus airport will cost about $35 on a good day. Denmark always finds a way to get you. But as it’s so cheap, it’s probably worth it. I’m traveling with my lovely Slovakian lady friend Ivana, who has valiantly decided to put up with my nonsense for the next month and a half, and we start the nonsense off right. No trip to Eastern Europe can be complete without a Slav squat.
The flight hardly takes an hour, and we’re in the adorable Polish city to enjoy the afternoon. This is my second time in Gdańsk, but I’m just as impressed as the first time I came here. Designed in the same light and style as Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Copenhagen, Gdańsk easily rivals these cities architecture with a specific Polish charm. Buildings are beautiful, houses are cute, and it’s all reasonably affordable: as you’d expect from anywhere in the East. Honestly, Poland is one of my favorite countries in Europe. Every town I’ve visited is so charming, (relatively) non-touristy, and cheap. That’s the makeup for a great stop. Photo cred to Ivana. It’s extremely underrated and so beautiful. A perfect place to start a trip. We find a couchsurfer named Michal, who is an IT man by day and rescuer in his free time. And he has four cats (also rescues). You’d expect an apartment with four rescued cats to be like an episode of Planet Earth…and you’d be right. But in general, the cats were extremely loving and cuddly, and were more than willing to cover all of our clean clothes with their hair. Michal was extremely warm and welcoming, and we spend a few hours talking over a beer about music and life before grabbing some sleep for the next day’s adventures.
Today, the plan is to hitchhike to Vilnius. The next flight of our journey leaves from Vilnius, so we have to traverse the North Polish steppe to get to the city I only just left a few weeks ago. We get up early, and get to the site we decide will be the best place to hitch from. It’s raining…hard…and we spend two hours in the rain, getting flushed with street water from passing trucks as our painted ‘Vilnius’ sign gets soggy in limp. A little discouraged, we head to a gas station to dry off and check our options. After a little research, it becomes clear that there really isn’t a good way to get to Vilnius via public transport, and everything takes a good eighteen hours. Now we decide we need to get a ride. I paint on a new face, with a fresh American smile and put some music on my bluetooth speaker. At least now it’s not raining, and we’re waving and smiling to every car that passes by. This time, it only takes twenty minutes before a Hyundai picks us up. Inside is Matthew, a Polish man coming to Gdańsk to pick up some building supplies for a fireplace reconstruction he’s doing the next day. He’s extremely nice and tells us he’s picked us up to make up for all those that picked him up hitchhiking in his twenties. He offers us a stay with his wife and kids, but we only have one more day to get to Vilnius and decide it’s best we keep moving. He drops us off about a 1/3 of the way to Vilnius, in a town in the middle of nowhere called Olsztyn. There’s not a lot here, but there are 100,000 people calling it home. We quickly grab a bus to take us another 1/3 of the way, to a border town called Suwałki. It takes 4 hours, the bus is cramped and part of it we have to sit on the stairs in the back to let elderly members of Polish society sit in our seats. But we eventually make it at around 21:30, and are pretty tired from the trip. We miraculously find a brewery, ironically named ‘Midnight Brewery’ and have some fresh beers while researching the next leg of the journey. Somehow, there’s a bus going to Vilnius from this town at 1:25 in the morning, so we buckle in and get ready to wait. Ivana stays up writing and I take a little nap, and at midnight we’re kicked out and made to wander the wet streets until the bus comes. An hour and a half later, a bus strangely appears and we join the trip surprised that the internet was right about an Eastern European bus. We tuck in, and when I open my eyes its 6 am and we’re in Vilnius.
This is Ivana’s first time in Vilnius, so I do the good tour guide thing of taking her to my favorite cafe…where I take a nap. Not a very tour guide thing. Sorry, Ivana. Photo cred to Ivana. The Užupis angel, right across from the cafe. Now we have a day in Vilnius, before taking a 6 am flight to Kutaisi in Georgia. It’s not worth finding a place to sleep, so we’ll spend the night in the airport. I call upon a local to be our guide, and it happens to be my roommate’s boyfriend Lukas. We wander around, playing out of tune street pianos and engaging in aimless meandering. It’s the kind of walking that has no direction or purpose, yet makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something just from the sheer kilometers you rack up. After about 17 kilometers walked, we decide we’re hungry for that oh so famous Šaltibarščiai and Zeppelins. We sit down and let cold purple soup and bomb bursting Zeppelins take their toll. Yes, it hurts. But it’s that good kind of hurt that makes you want more. It’s that hurt that made me come back and get the exact same thing, and probably make me get it again next time I end up in Vilnius. I’m about to explode, so it’s time to relax and watch some dogs in a public park on a hillside. Ivana and I are pretty tired now, but we still want one more Lithuanian beer before heading out. We go to the popular bar Šnekutis and grab a list beer with Lukas. We’re all a little bit tired, and Ivana and I haven’t showered since we left Denmark. But in a way, that’s part of the fun. Being dirty and carrying an oversized backpack for 17 kilometers through a city isn’t everyone kind of vacation, but I’d say it’s a pretty good one for me. We finally get to the airport for a few hours of sleep. Now, we wait for our 6 am flight to Georgia, and who knows what awaits us there…